Johnny Vegas

11th April 2008 at 01:00
He was the unhappy border at a seminary, but the comedian found a teacher who would become a friend for life at his next school

It may surprise people to know that at one time I was destined for a career in the church. At 11, I left my working class, Catholic family in St Helen's, Merseyside, to be a boarder at Upholland Seminary. If I'd stuck it out I would have been performing at an altar instead of on a stage now.

But as it happened, I didn't take to seminary school. I'd thought it would be a chance to develop my faith and feed the curiosity that I had about God. But the attitude was: "Do as you're told, and don't ask questions." It felt more military than spiritual. After four terms I went home for Christmas and never went back.

West Park High School for Boys followed. But the seminary had left its mark. I was the lad that was going to be a priest. So I was instantly a bit of a weirdo. I felt disjointed, an outsider. I'd hear kids moaning and react like a pensioner: "You don't know you're born." No wonder I wasn't popular.

I wasn't especially happy at secondary school. I spent a lot of time pulling sickies. After Upholland I developed massive problems with authority. I was probably a nightmare to teach, but I felt that most of the teachers didn't understand that I had had a different experience from everyone else. I say "most" because there was one teacher who saw what was going on behind my eyes.

Rowena Rowlands, who taught me English from the ages of 12 to 16, was that rare thing: a teacher who was a lot more interested in telling you what was right with you, than what was wrong. She was a massive influence on my life.

Mrs Rowlands found ways of reaching me where others failed. She was funny for a start. She appealed to my inner comedian. On one occasion, she looked at this class of bored, adolescent boys and put her book down. She said: "I've had enough of this. You think you've got problems, but look at it from my point of view. I'm confronted with a room full of lads who are blossoming into young men and not one of them has discovered deodorant yet. You all stink. So, if I can put up with that, you can at least read this passage with some passion."

Her humour was always quite near the mark. So, even though we got on brilliantly in class, she once wrote on my report: "Michael can talk about any given, or un-given, subject to any person, whether they are willing, or not, to listen. At any time. Please, if you are to preserve my sanity, teach him to shut up."

Fortunately, my mum and dad thought it was hilarious. And so did I. I understood her humour and she mine. On one occasion, to break the monotony of a lesson, she held an impromptu talent contest. I got up and played a medley of tunes on my nose, which she thought was wonderful. She gave me first prize - a commemorative Charles and Diana mug.

I think she understood that you win a lot more hearts and minds through laughter than you do through shouting, and because she didn't demand your respect, you gave it to her willingly.

Not that it was all laughter. She also introduced me to the serious world of literature. I still love books now, basically because she put me on the road and demystified her subject as any good teacher will. She made literature available to me and she gave me so much encouragement. On one occasion she asked me to stand up in class and read a passage from John Wyndham's The Chrysalids and afterwards she stood at the back of the class and slowly applauded. On the one hand, I thought: "You've no idea how much trouble that will get me into at break time." But on the other, I was chuffed.

I made contact with Rowena Rowlands again about a year ago. She was working at another school. I wrote her a note and said: "Please get in touch. It would be lovely to hear from you." I wanted to apologise to her because, in the end, I got a B for English literature O-level and a C for English language. With her as my teacher, I should have got As. I felt I'd let her down. I also wanted to say thank you to her and to let her know that I would not be at the stage that I'm at now if it hadn't been for her. As a result we've become buddies.

She retired from teaching this year, which is a loss for every kid who won't be taught by her. But possibly my gain. I'm thinking of writing about my childhood and about my experiences at Upholland. I revisited it recently for a documentary that I was making on faith, and I was stunned by how affected I was by going back there.

Anyway, Rowena has agreed to oversee the writing and offer suggestions - and maybe correct the grammar. It will be just like old times. I can't think of another soul I'd trust more.

Actor, comedian and writer, Michael Pennington, 36, is best known to audiences as Johnny Vegas. He is currently starring in the ITV comedy Benidorm (Fridays, 9pm). He was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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